America is a pro-marriage country. After debating the value of matrimony for several decades, Americans have come down firmly in favor of tying the knot. Cue the wedding bells.
Some readers may be scratching their heads at this point. That is understandable. No reasonable person could claim that the institution of marriage is healthy in America today. It has been declining for some time, particularly among the poor. Charles Murray has documented this quite dramatically in his recent bestseller, Coming Apart, which examines marital trends in America from 1960 through 2010. Murray’s analysis shows that wealthier and better-educated Americans became highly divorce-prone in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. After that period, marriage made a modest recovery in this demographic, which gradually became less tolerant of divorce and cohabitation. Today marriage is still an institution of great social significance among the elite, and college-educated women who bear children overwhelmingly do so within the bonds of wedlock.
For the poor and less educated, the story is quite different. Among this demographic marriage declined in the 1970’s, and then declined further. There has been no recovery. We now live in a world in which approximately a third of prime-age working class men have never married, and women without a high school education are substantially more likely to have a child out of wedlock than in it.
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The social consequences of this cultural shift have been grim, especially for children. As Murray points out, the children of married, biological parents who are living together have the best chance to thrive and succeed in life, according to virtually every measurable indicator. For poor children in America, the decline of marriage has been nothing short of catastrophic. Murray regards it as the single most significant dividing line between the privileged elite and the struggling underclass in an increasingly class-segregated United States.
These are sobering facts. Still, the social dissolution comes with a silver lining. Americans may be inept at making their marriages work, but most now agree that it is worth trying. This is particularly true among the rich and educated, who have the most influence on our cultural institutions. Far from sneering at marriage as a repressive and bourgeoisie institution, they have become enthusiastic advocates.
As a nice indicator of how far things have come, recall the storm of controversy that Dan Quayle once precipitated by criticizing Murphy Brown (a sitcom character) for having a baby on her own and describing this as a “lifestyle choice.” Quayle suggested that the show was setting a bad example by presenting a capable, successful woman as a single mother by choice. The show had always been obnoxiously enamored with its own clichéd liberal values, and it predictably seized the opportunity to thumb its nose at America’s nerdiest politician. The episode in which Murphy Brown swung back at the vice president was not-so-cleverly entitled You Say Potatoe, and it allowed Murphy to self-righteously excoriate the vice president for failing to appreciate that families come in “many shapes and sizes.”
Flash forward to today. We do not see successful women (real or fictional) proudly flaunting their single parent status. Instead, we see the New York Times (hardly a bastion of conservatism) running pieces like “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,’” which uses both statistical and anecdotal evidence to make the point that single parenthood is extraordinarily challenging for everyone involved. This is true even when the single parent is hard-working and conscientious, as in the story’s featured case of Jessica Schairer, the single mother of three whose Herculean efforts to give her kids a good life still leave them obviously disadvantaged in comparison to the children of a married friend and colleague. The story is extraordinary both for its honesty and for its pathos. It even includes a heartbreaking anecdote about the excitement that Schairer’s son feels when she finds a boyfriend (“we’re going to do boy stuff!”), and the disappointment that follows when the boyfriend shows no interest in being a substitute dad. The piece does not go so far as to state explicitly that children need fathers, but the implication is fairly clear.
It is amazing to read such a story, and reflect on the improbability of finding it in a mainstream publication twenty or even ten years ago. And yet, this piece is not an outlier. One can find literature on “the marriage gap” sprinkled all through the liberal press. It’s official: marriage is once more in the good graces of the liberal elite. Not many are lining up to apologize to Quayle, but the fact remains that he has been vindicated. Liberals are now largely in agreement with his basic point that single parenthood is decidedly non-ideal, and that stable two-parent families overwhelmingly make the best homes for children.
Why are liberals suddenly willing to embrace marriage? I think the reason is basically threefold. The first reason is that the statistical and sociological evidence has become all but impossible to ignore. Whether you value wealth, health or happiness more generally, marriage is good for people. This is why the elite have embraced it, and also why they are now somewhat willing to discuss how sub-optimal family structures may be hurting the poor.
The second reason is that liberals have undercut the traditional understanding of marriage and changed it into something that is less offensive to them. The liberal ideal of “capstone” marriage unites two already-mature-and-professionally-established adults in what is meant to be a mutually beneficial relationship. This model does not threaten young people’s (and particularly young women’s) professional advancement in the way that conjugal marriage once did. It focuses heavily on love and mutual support, and passes lightly over the obligation to bear children. There are serious reasons to lament the popularity of the capstone model of marriage, which is bad both for American demographics and also for the poor. (If we envision marriage as an institution for professionally established people, what happens to those who never reach that bar?) Still, it has worked fairly well for the liberal elite, and has brightened their attitudes towards marriage more generally.
The third reason (which I will discuss in more detail in a forthcoming column) is that liberals have used marriage as a tool for normalizing homosexuality. This somewhat perverse strategy endangers marriage on many levels, but it has (somewhat ironically) had the effect of turning American public opinion more decidedly in favor of marriage. Far from arguing that marriage is a bourgeoisie institution that should be abolished, most Americans will now agree that it is very much a positive thing, which promotes both individual welfare and also the common good.
Clearly, the fact that Americans support marriage in principle does not mean that we should sleep easily at night. Widespread-but-nominal support for marriage does not translate into a healthy marriage culture. For that, we would need the public to have a proper understanding of what marriage is, together with well-formed sensibilities concerning sexuality and family life. Sadly, it is all too obvious that those conditions do not obtain in American society at large.
The fact remains, however, that conservatives have lost a tremendous amount of ground in the marriage debate, and they now need to make the most of whatever tools they have. Americans today are overwhelmingly pro-marriage. They recognize that the collapse of marriage is a social problem, and are willing to discuss it as such. This is good news. We must find ways to use it to our (and our country’s) advantage.
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